5 Oct

Geographical Review Preview: American ‘Populism’ and the Spatial Contradictions of US Government in the Time of Covid-19

By: John Agnew

What is the main purpose of your study? Donald Trump was supposedly elected as President in 2016 on a populist-nationalist platform of “Making American Great Again.” Yet, during the pandemic of 2020 he was unable to put this into practice because he was in fact the prisoner of the small government/states’ rights anti-federalism that was the gospel of much of his electoral base. Even as he was able in some respects to provide national leadership, such as jump-starting a vaccine program, overall he was also trapped by the institutional bias in US federalism in place since the 1980s against a domestically activist role for the federal government. The purpose of the study is to suggest that it was not simply Trump’s rhetorical incoherence and managerial incompetence but the geography of contemporary US governance that produced the poor outcomes in the pandemic.

What are the practical, day to day, implications of your study? That the coordinative role of the federal government across the states and the capacity of states to learn from one another in response to new information are crucial in addressing crises such as a pandemic or other problems that afflict the country as a whole. That these aspects of US federalism have fallen into disrepair seems now all too obvious. So, going back to “business as usual” should not be on the cards. Unfortunately, the blind partisanship of current US politics means that states of different party complexions seem unlikely to show much interest in fixing US federalism for purpose in the 21st century.

How does your study relate to other work on the subject? Most writing on the course of the 2020-21 pandemic in the US tends to emphasize political polarization and Trump’s role in politicizing the pandemic or the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic across the population. Less attention has been given to tackling the ways in the current workings of the US federal system figured into the course of the pandemic and its relative outcomes across the country.

What are two or three interesting findings that come from your study? The first is that the workings of US federalism need to be more central to discussion of US governance, regardless of issue. The second is that the disastrous US response to the pandemic cannot simply be laid at the door of President Trump. Longer-term structural features of US federalism were at issue in the mismanagement of the pandemic. The third is that it has been the rigidly dualist vision of federalism as mandating strict division of functions between tiers of government, revived since the 1980s, that has been responsible for the overall poor performance of the US in the pandemic. A “polyphonic” vision of federalism, emphasizing overlapping responsibilities between the states and the federal government and the need for institutional collaboration among states more than competition between them, would have served the country better.

What might be some of the theoretical implications of this study? The paper emphasizes that federalism in an 18th century mold needs to catch up tp a world in which threats (such as pandemics) are geographically networked and thus need managing differently from the simple territorial delivery of public goods around which conventional notions of split government, between states and general government, for example, are typically based. Moreover, so-called state autonomy, central to current US anti-federalism, is never absolute practically, even though it provides advantages in matching local cultural-political differences with administrative capacity. Absent central coordination, as we have seen in the pandemic, states lacking essential capacities produce problematic outcomes depending on where people live that question the very basis to the meaning of national citizenship.

How does your research help us think about Geography? One implication would be that we need to interrogate the ways in which conjure up the images of government that we take for granted. When the US states are mapped we presume some sort of neat division of labor between the states and the general government. Yet, as the pandemic has shown, this image leads to expecting results that cannot be delivered. We can imagine and work towards a more interactive and collaborative model of federalism.

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